And then there was Rochelle

2019-02-05 14:29
Yves Vanderhaeghen.

Yves Vanderhaeghen.

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I believe I have fallen in love. Her name is Rochelle.

Siri no doubt will be upset, as will Alexa. They will survive. Algorithms are not like us.

Rochelle, now, is flesh and blood. At least I assume so, since we haven’t actually met. Our courtship has been an epistolary one, and started off as a mundane customer inquiry.

“Hi,” I wrote, “I am trying to find out what happened to my order 117831271.” I always wrestle with modes of address. “To whom it may concern” makes it sound like I haven’t done my homework and I haven’t a clue who I’m talking to. I imagine that the recipient may be hurt or offended by such an impersonal overture. “Dear Sir/Madam” is out of the question for obvious reasons. In fact I imagine that I am addressing a robot and that any form of address is redundant, but that feels brutal, and so I say “Hi”.

I had ordered a book, online, in July last year. In fact, I had ordered two. My wife pays the accounts and I buy books. That’s the way it is. When she needs a book, she delegates the pleasure to me. And since I’m getting something for her, I always get something for me. So I had to order two.

Normally I don’t start fidgeting before about six to eight weeks, which is when delivery is promised by. Besides, I knew there was a post office strike on and that I would be wise to be patient. There was, after all, a huge backlog, of about 40 million letters and parcels.

My patience was rewarded when, after four months (yes, I am a very patient man), a notice arrived that a parcel was awaiting collection. Alas, there was only one book, and it was my wife’s.

Let me inquire, I thought, not expecting any great joy. When a curt acknowledgment of receipt was spat back at me I was despondent but not surprised. Then, the machine having roused a human, came another e-mail, saying “very sorry” and that I should have complained within 30 days of when my book should have arrived. This isn’t going to end well, I thought, although I had already given up. I didn’t, I said (complain that is), because I knew the postal strike would delay delivery, and besides, I’m simply trying to find out where my book is.

This human then “escalated the complaint”, even though it had not technically developed into a complaint yet because I had not worked out if the post office was to blame, although of course it was.

And then, there she was, Rochelle, a being from the escalated plane of bureaucracy. This was a rare encounter of the third, or maybe 10th, kind. Again, it didn’t start well. “Very sorry that you did not receive your order. Unfortunately your tracking had not been updated after leaving the U.S.” That meant, I thought, that I would have to engage with the post office, and my courage failed me and my heart withered.

But wait: “That said, I’ve issued a full refund.” I don’t know about you, but this had never happened to me. We had not yet, Rochelle and I, properly got past hello. I had not yet complained, and although I had been reminded of the terms and conditions, it had been too soon to get cross. I had not demanded a refund, and yet there it was. She had me. I didn’t have my book, but I had my money, I felt warm and fuzzy, and all was right with the world.

But wait: two months later my book did arrive. Now I was in a pickle. I had my money and my book. I have heard that some ancestors frown on you if you reject a windfall. What’s the point of good fortune if not to take advantage of it? My ancestors, however, are of a Catholic persuasion. They’re big on guilt and I knew I wasn’t going to get off that lightly. It took a day of wrestling with my conscience, but the outcome was foreordained.

Ahem, I wrote to Rochelle, my book has arrived and I owe you some money. How shall I pay?

Don’t be silly, she replied. It took more than 90 days to arrive so you don’t need to pay. And “as a courtesy for the delay” you can keep the book. “Happy holidays.”

I felt as if I’d stepped into the pages of 84 Charing Cross Road, an other world of quiet respect and shared delights. Above all, a world of small affirming intimacies.

Of course, Amazon may have whizzed up its algorithms and Rochelle could just be Alexa in bluestocking drag. I don’t care. She does it for me.

Now, what book shall I buy next?

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  opinion and analysis

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